Unclaimed Funds on a Closed Estate?
August 8, 2008 7:24 PM   Subscribe

How do I go about pursuing unclaimed funds in my deceased father's name? He died almost 28 years ago, had no Will and my parents were divorced. What's even more of a catch is that I'm not in contact with my mother (crazy non-med bipolar) or anyone on my father's side of the family (see below). So, I'm somewhat limited in what information I have with regard to his Estate.

I was fooling around with one of those unclaimed funds sites last night and happened upon both a bank account and an investment fund account in my father's name. He died in 1980 at the age of 44 without a Will, and the family aftermath was particularly ugly (divorced, both sides of the family hated each other, big fight over who was paying for what, who was getting the proceeds of the Estate, etc.).

Ultimately, the majority of the Estate was put into a Trust for both my brother and myself (we were 7 and 10 at the time). Not long after his passing, my mother somehow got the Court to allow her full access to the funds under the pretense of support (in addition to receiving Social Security) and blew *all* of it.

To my knowledge, one of my father's brothers, a lawyer, dealt with all the formalities of the Estate (I know that he was the one that went through all of his possessions, etc.). However, I've not been in contact with any of these people in nearly 30 years. They weren't friendly to me when he was alive, and certainly weren't after he was dead. I also don't think it's a great idea to call them out of the blue and ask for information only for them to find out it's because there's money involved, iykwim.

Upon my paternal grandmother's passing a few years ago, I did receive some paperwork belonging to my father. I seem to recall that one of the items was his death certificate, though I can't be certain. If I *do* have it, it's somewhere in the great abyss of my basement.

I looked online to see what I would need to get a new copy (he died in NYC), and among other things, they require his mother's maiden name and his father's first name. I have no clue as to what they were. I do, however, have his last address, birth and death dates, and his Social Security Number. I don't know if that is sufficient enough, and I don't know if they are going to require any sort of documentation to prove that there was no Will in place. I know that I'm also going to have to produce my own birth certificate to demonstrate that I am, in fact, his daughter.

I do not want to involve my mother in this at all. I've not spoken to her in years, and she will undoubtedly stake claim to whatever she can. I spent a few hours tonight doing searches online trying to find names/contact information for his parents, but no dice (my paternal grandfather died before I was born). The thought of just going to the cemetery and getting their names that way crossed my mind. At this point, it might be faster...

So, how do I do this? I don't even know how much money is in the accounts.

The unclaimed funds are in NY State, if it makes any difference.

Thanks for your input.
posted by dancinglamb to Law & Government (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's probably a person in the NY Governor's office who can help you. My understanding is that there is such an office in all or most state governments. Try giving them a call and seeing if they can point you in the right direction? Failing that, a NY lawyer who specializes in wills & estates would be able to help.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:46 PM on August 8, 2008

Perhaps you can find an obituary in the local newspaper of his area at the time of death. Maybe someone has posted it on "findagrave.com" or do a search on genealogy.com to see if you get lucky.

Having his SSN is a great assist to positive identification.

Don't give up.

Good luck
posted by JayRwv at 8:17 PM on August 8, 2008

Request a copy of his death certificate in the state of his death. That is a great assist to your search. I will volunteer to help search for records about him if you will email me separately and give me what information you have. jayrwv@gmx.com
posted by JayRwv at 8:21 PM on August 8, 2008

JayRwv, thank you for your kind offer. I did extensive searches today on genealogy sites (as well as obits, etc.) and only came up with information I already have.

I need his mother's maiden name and his father's first name in order to get the death certificate from NYC Vital Statistics. I may just try and apply for it using the information I have and see if they will push it through using that. I suspect that having the SSN is more accurate than his father's first name.
posted by dancinglamb at 9:26 PM on August 8, 2008

Do you have brothers or sisters?

In most states, these are true:

1. The ex-wife has no interest of any kind in this property, unless there is something in the divorce judgment that says otherwise. Likewise his brothers and sisters would not have an interest.
2. The children of the deceased inherit it all, in equal shares.
3. An estate may be opened at any time. You will have priority to serve as executor, if your brothers and sisters consent. Letters of Authority from the surrogate's court (as it is called in NY) give you full authority to claim the funds and distribute them.

A copy of the death certificate may not even be needed. (You need to ask a New York lawyer.) In my state, it is sufficient to provide the date of death on the initial probate court paperwork.

Very often the state or others holding property belonging to a decedent will not talk to family members until an executor is appointed. This ensures that no one else will later say that the money should have come to them instead.
posted by yclipse at 9:06 AM on August 9, 2008

yclipse, thanks for that information. My brother is totally fine with me pursuing this - and I fully intend on giving him half of whatever proceeds this process unearths.

I'm pretty certain that I still need the death certificate, though, in order to even access the funds from the State Comptroller. They are the ones that are serving as custodians for the accounts, and they are the ones calling the shots.

What I don't know is whether it's required that the Executor be the same person it was when the Estate was originally opened upon his death in 1980. To clarify, can I be the appointed Executor this time around once the Estate is reopened or does the State require that the Executor of the Estate remain the original appointee (my father's brother)?
posted by dancinglamb at 9:43 AM on August 9, 2008

>whether it's required that the Executor be the same person it was when the Estate was originally opened

It is not. In most states, the nearest relatives (that would be you and your brother) would have the first priority to serve, and more distant relatives would have to get a formal "pass" statement from those who have priority before they could be appointed.

The only reason that your uncle had to do it the first time was that you were both minors.
posted by yclipse at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2008

I was asked to post this response.

There is no way on earth she is going to be able to claim that money if her mother is still alive as the executor is the only one going to be legally able to claim it. If she would mention how much money is in the account she may be eligible to receive a portion of it after the mother as surviving spouse is paid, depending on how much was left. The executor is going to be required to provide a list of ALL eligible heirs so that the money can be distributed propertly to all legal heirs and the daughter will not be able to get away with claiming this money for her and her brother by themselves.

Thank you.

KEITH N. Probate Researcher
posted by JayRwv at 5:17 PM on August 11, 2008

The probate researcher's response overlooks this point, mentioned by the poster in her original post:

"my parents were divorced"

That means that the poster's mother has no role to play.

I did overlook the possibility that her father was married to someone else when he died. If so, his wife would be first in line.
posted by yclipse at 5:32 PM on August 13, 2008

Most people are having you start at the wrong end. Your initial inquiry should be to the New York State Comptroller. Who (executor, administrator, demonstrated heir) will that office allow to claim the funds held in the name of a decedent? Whatever they say goes. You may or may not have any luck negotiating with them-- in my experience, these unclaimed funds repositories are officious and rule-bound.

My semi-educated guess is that there was an administrator named for your father's estate (although New York law and courts have funny names for a lot of things, so the title may be different-- in most states, an administrator is the person named to administer a decedent's estate when there is no will or the will can't be probated). Not being licensed in New York, I can't begin to guess whether the named administrator, if (s)he is still alive, could still function in that regard, or whether the probate case could be reopened to name a successor.

Another avenue to explore is whether, under the terms of the trust, the unclaimed property could be considered to be property of the trust. Depends on the language of the trust and the workings of New York law. If it could be claimed as trust property, then the trustee should be the proper person to make the claim...again, depending on the Comptroller and his/her rules, and New York law.

This is the type of case that could put my kid through college-- messy, full of accidental legalities-- it has the whiff of "Bleak House" to it. So I'll amend my first advice tidbit to suggest that yes, you should contact the Comptroller's office, but in addition to asking what they require in the nature of a claim of a decedent's property, see if they'll tell you how much money is in issue. If it's less than, say, $5,000, it probably makes no sense to hire a lawyer, because it's gonna take a good one to sort this out, and it won't be fast or cheap. If the amount is question is small, then what the hell, take a swing at getting it yourself, especially if all you're spending is your time.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 9:32 PM on August 13, 2008

Update: I did call the Comptroller's office and they suggested that I contact the Surrogate's Court to determine if there was an Administrator of the Estate (there may or may not have been).

I contacted the Surrogate's Court and spoke to possibly the nicest guy in downtown NYC, told me to just bring a copy of my father's death certificate (already sent away for a copy of that - was able to use his SSN in lieu of his mother's maiden name), and they would do a search for the Administrator of his Estate. He said that the likelihood is that there isn't one - or if there was one - it can be transferred to me since I am now the age of majority and his direct heir, and that I can just be appointed via application on the same day.

Once I receive documentation attesting of my Administration of the Estate, I can then file the Claim with the Comptroller's office. They did advise me, however, that it would likely take 6+ months for them to turn the claim around (and I still have no idea how much money might be at stake).

JayRwv: My brother and I are the only heirs, I'm not really trying to get away with anything... My parents were divorced, so my mother can legally hold no claim to his Estate. I also have no idea how much money is in the two accounts. Unfortunately, the State doesn't divulge that information.

: No, he wasn't remarried, though he did have a girlfriend

: Sorry, you'll have to find another good case to send your kiddo to college on :) thanks for your help, though! It's amazing how a lawyer could go around without a Will. Kind of like how dentists always have bad teeth, huh? *sigh*
posted by dancinglamb at 8:20 PM on August 18, 2008

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